John Wilson

The OT

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And after Abimelech there arose to defend Israel Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he dwelt in Shamir in mount Ephraim.
And he judged Israel twenty and three years, and died, and was buried in Shamir.
And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years.
And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts and had thirty cities, which are called Havoth-jair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
And Jair died, and was buried in Camon.
And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim, and Ashtaroth, and the gods of Syria, and the gods of Zidon, and the gods of Moab, and the gods of the children of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines, and forsook the Lord, and served not him.
And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon.

—Judges 10:1–7 (KJV)

If the mention of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, elicits a glimmer of recognition; if you remember being tantalized by the enigmatic sons of Jair, who rode on thirty ass colts and had thirty cities—then you should award yourself a gold star such as our Sunday school teachers gave us fifty years ago when we had successfully completed our memory work for the week.

Chances are, though, that you haven't read the Book of Judges in a very long time—maybe never. America may be a religious nation, America may even be, in some sense, a predominantly Christian nation, but as Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero and a number of others have observed, America today is also a nation of biblical illiterates. And that's especially true when it comes to knowledge of the Old Testament, which makes up about three-quarters of the Bible. Even among many evangelicals, who fervently proclaim their devotion to the Word of God, large chunks of the Old Testament are terra incognita, seldom or never explored, much less pored over.

There are hopeful signs of change. Influential evangelical pastors as various as Kent Hughes at College Church in Wheaton and Rob Bell at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids are preaching with great effect from the Old Testament. And as Philip Jenkins points out in his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (coming in September from Oxford Univ. Press), "the experience of the emerging churches must make us rethink the role of the Old Testament… Southern readings can help us exorcize the stubborn ghost of Marcion, a task that Christian churches need to repeat with some regularity."

But help is also on the way from another—most unlikely—source: a novel by a Jewish feminist, bitterly contemptuous of the God of Jacob. Thanks to this book, the genre of Old Testament fiction has been reinvigorated.

Fiction set in the world of ancient Israel is nothing new, of course, though it has always taken a back seat to biblical stories surrounding Jesus and Paul. In the dusty bookstores I frequented when I was old enough to hunt, there were invariably a few secondhand copies of Dr. Frank G. Slaughter's pious potboilers. While his New Testament tales are better-known, Slaughter didn't neglect the Old. Among his books in this vein were The Scarlet Cord (about Rahab the harlot, a favorite of ot novelists), The Curse of Jezabel, and The Song of Ruth. ("Against the Moabite leader's massive ugliness Boaz seemed small, but the sinews of his torso were smooth and rippling compared with Hedak's bunched muscles and huge limbs.")

At the other end of the spectrum are fables such as Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, first published in Canada in 1984, a deliberately anachronistic, self-consciously blasphemous retelling of the story of Noah and the Flood; and David Maine's The Preservationist, published in 2004, another Noah's ark tale, considerably more whimsical and less axe-grinding than Findley but equally irreverent.

While ot fiction has never gone entirely out of fashion, it's fair to say that a decade ago the genre was enfeebled. Then came The Red Tent, Anita Diamant's 1997 novel centered on Jacob's daughter Dinah, who appears fleetingly in the 34th chapter of Genesis in one of those episodes that most preachers prefer to ignore. (When was the last time you heard a sermon on this text?) From Jacob's sons, of course, came the 12 tribes of Israel, but who remembers that he even had a daughter? As the kjv relates,

And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.
And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and he spoke kindly unto the damsel.
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